Volunteering with Suas is a life-changing experience. Current Rose of Tralee Charmaine Kenny describes how her visit to Kolkata opened her eyes to the plight of India’s poor.
It has been seven years since I first volunteered with Suas Educational Development, an Irish-based, education-focused organisation that supports access to quality education in under-resourced communities in Ireland, India and Kenya. My interest in the organisation was sparked during my undergraduate days here in Trinity, where I studied Management Science and Information Systems Studies and later completed a M.Sc. in Economics. I had been looking to volunteer abroad for a summer. Suas was only getting up and running then. It has made leaping progress since those days – now supporting 13,000 children in under-resourced communities, working with an annual budget of €1.2 million in 2009 and sending 80 volunteers to work as teaching assistants with local partners in India and Kenya this summer (of which 23 are Trinity students).
The Suas Trinity Society has also grown markedly over the past few years, even winning awards at the CSC Annual Society of the Year event; the Society run a weekly Development Education course on campus and a number of homework clubs, and it has a strong affiliation with the Bridge 2 College programme, a collaboration between Suas, the Trinity Access Programme and the Center of Research for IT in Education.
I am thrilled to be able to use my role as Rose of Tralee to act as an ambassador for Suas. The three months spent in Kolkata working as a teaching assistant in 2003 and a further three months spent in Delhi volunteering as a team co-ordinator in 2006 was for me a very humbling and enlightening experience and one which I’ve certainly carried with me over the years. It not only gave me an appreciation for what a fortunate life I’ve been born into but also a flavour of the power that I have to make a difference. And it’s a double-edged difference – one cannot stress enough that whilst volunteering can make a very positive impact on the community with which you are working, the biggest impact being made is probably on yourself.
The first thing that struck me on my recent return to Kolkata is that there has been a noticeable change in this city; it has evidently seen a real boom. There are Dundrum-esque shopping malls, large blocks of middle-class apartments, and better quality and more variety of cars on the road. I even wonder where all the roving cows have disappeared to. Then there’s the area of Salt Lake City, the hub of Kolkata’s IT industry, which is a far cry from Mother Theresa’s Calcutta. The local Suas partners in Kolkata – Development Action Society (DAS), Sabuj Sangha and Vikramshila – would all stress that this is only one side of the story, and that progress only touches a very small percentage of the population. The fact remains that 37 percent of West Bengal, the state to which Kolkata is capital, is still illiterate and 53 percent still drop out at primary school level.
The Suas Partner Support team manager, Bryan Patten, along with a media team of journalist Tom Lyons and photographer Brian Meade, both of The Sunday Times, and Newstalk’s Chris Donoghue, were my travel companions. On our first nght, we travelled out to the south-eastern part of the city and meet with DAS, a partner of Suas, with whom I worked in 2003 as a teaching assistant. DAS focuses on empowering women and children. Their goal is to break the cycle of poverty in their target areas through providing and supporting the education of first generation learners, as well as supporting community empowerment through building the skills and capacity of women. I was chuffed that they had a poster inside their office saying “Welcome Charmine”. When they noticed the error in spelling my name, they told me it was the Indian spelling! We heard about the great progress that DAS are making, as well as the challenges they face in their projects.
DAS took us to visit the community of Makaltala, a village of about 500 people that is located beside Kolkata’s main dump. As you approach the dumping ground in the jeep, you become covered in flies. The villagers make their living by rag-picking on the dump – collecting plastics, metals, glass, wood pieces – anything that they can sell for a few rupees. Some even rummage for food. Men, women and children, alongside cows, pigs, wild dogs, birds and rats, scavenge together. 80 per cent of Kolkata’s hospitals dump their refuse straight into municipal tips that are delivered to Makaltala dump. Villagers work with no protection – if not barefoot, they wear flimsy plastic flipflops; they wear no gloves, no masks. A crematorium located within the dump cremates unclaimed bodies and has a defective chimney. Fumes and smoke are spread over the village area polluting the air further. Unsurprisingly the health of the village is poor, with people suffering cuts, bruises, infections and internal ailments from the toxic waste. The village lacks the basic facilities of public transport, piped water, sanitation and electricity. DAS have set up a school here, educating the children who are all first generation learners. Many of the children ragpick before and after school. We spoke with ten-year-old Kisham Porem who attends the school – at least he thinks he is ten, but he is not sure. Very few of the births in this community are registered so no one is quite sure of their age. He told us how he witnessed his father kill his mother by burning her alive with kerosene. Later that day, Gargi, the DAS teacher, pointed out his father as we negotiated our way around the village.
DAS have also helped the women of the community set up a Women’s Community Group. Together the women have successfully campaigned to a local councillor to have an illegal alcohol shop closed down. Substance abuse is a big social issue within the community amongst both men and children. We met nine-year-old Chotka Sadar, already a recovering alcoholic. Chotka told us of how he started drinking when he was 4 because, when he would come home from a day of ragpicking, there was no food left for him. So he would buy alcohol, local brew no doubt, to numb the hunger. He explains to us how the school has helped him battle his addiction and he enjoys the daily school meals that he receives. The women speak with passion; they see education as the way for their children to hoist themselves out of this dire existence. I am inspired by the aspirations these women have for their children; they want their children to become “self-dependent”, to pave a happy and peaceful life for themselves and not to suffer the lives of their parents. One lady tells of her hope for her son to become a doctor, that he also has compassion to do something about the health of the people of Makaltala. Suas volunteers work here every summer and I admire their hardiness – it is by no means an easy placement.
Now back in Ireland the focus is on how we can continue the work on the ground in communities like Makaltala. The main annual fundraising campaign of Suas – Shamrocks for Schools – took place last week around St. Patrick’s Day. Suas recruited 250 volunteers in Dublin, Cork and Galway to paint shamrocks on the faces of parade revellers young and old, collecting voluntary donations. By working together in this way, volunteers raised over €22,000 for Suas.
I am thrilled that this year, all of the funds raised will go directly to Suas Partner Projects that I visited in Kolkata. When it costs less than €70 to support the education of a child for a year including meals, copybooks and uniform, the money that was raised on St. Patrick’s Day will go a long way.
If you are interested in getting involved with Suas, visit their website at www.suas.ie. To see where exactly the money raised will go, check the recent Newstalk documentary at http://media.newstalk.ie/podcast/18732/